Fear Of Retaliation Keeps Some Parents In Silent Anguish

April 19, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff writer

Evonnie Gbadebo didn't think twice.

She was so frustrated -- moreangered than anything else -- that she marched right down to the Board of Education in Ellicott City to talk to Superintendent Michael E.Hickey about her 14-year-old daughter, who had been sprayed with disinfectant by a white classmate on a school bus.

"My daughter's been called nigger, black slave, African monkey," she said. "While she was at Glenwood Middle School, that was pretty much the norm to some students. She heard other students being called these kinds of names. She's heard Asian kids called chinks."

Afterthe December incident, Gbadebo was told she couldn't see Hickey for at least a week -- he was busy working on the budget.

Upset, she lashed out at the school system during a Board of Education hearing and later at a Howard County Human Rights Commission meeting. In return, she said, she received harassing phone calls and threat letters. She doesn't feel safe anymore in her community.

None of it surprisesRoger Jones, who heads the Human Rights Commission. He said parents are plain afraid to come forward with their complaints.

"Most people we talk to are scared to death of the retaliation and the retaliation their kids are going to suffer," he said. "They don't want to talk about it. It's frustrating."

Fear is a common emotion among parents who want to raise concerns about the school system, said Gloria Washington, a liaison for the school system's Black Student Achievement Program. Part of her job involves dealing with parents who have problems or questions about their children and schools.

"It's a very normal reaction to have when questioning and challenging a system," Washington said. "As parents are getting better informed of their rights and responsibilities, the fear of retaliation is lessened."

While police recorded six racial incidents in schools last year, Jones said as many as 15 parents stepped forward during that period to tell him about incidents their children experienced. But the commission wants a written document before it can investigate, and many parents aren't willing to put their names on paper.

Consequently, many incidents are unreported, he said. "People want to portray Howard County and Columbia as a great melting pot, where it's peaches and cream. Well, it's not all peaches and cream."

Valerie Smith stepped forward in January to tell school board members her son had been called racial slurs and punched in the stomach by schoolmates at West Friendship Elementary School. And like Gbadebo, she didn't think twice.

"As citizens we have rights, and it's my duty as a parent to protect my children," she said.

Smith's daughter, who attends Glenwood Middle, initially was afraid of harassment, but there has been none. Smith has gotten many supportive phone calls -- from black and white parents."And the staff at West Friendship has been very receptive and responsive to suggestions I've made," she said.

Gbadebo pulled her daughter out of Glenwood after the bus incident.

"No one did anything for my child in this school," she said about Glenwood. "You would think that with all the school counselors and school psychologists, they'd sit down with the other students and say, 'This is racial intolerance. This behavior is inappropriate and will not be tolerated.' Nobodydid that."

But school spokeswoman Patti Caplan said "every effortto move this into a problem-solving phase was thwarted."

"We werenot able to get (Gbadebo) past the anger stage to work for a resolution of the problem," Caplan said. "It's been very difficult to find some way to reconcile this with her."

Gbadebo's daughter is now attending a Columbia middle school, where she is doing well, Gbadebo said.

"My child was hurt," she said. "She was harassed out of her district school, the district school that I'm paying taxes for. How could this happen in this community?"

While parents usually don't stepforward to complain, they gripe among themselves when they have a problem with the school system, said Joyce Gamble, whose daughter attends Centennial High School. She said those who are fed up, give up.

"They've placed their children in private schools," she said. "They've pulled them out and gotten rid of the problem. The reason I didn'tpull my children out is because they have an inherent right to be there. I've paid taxes for them to be there."

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